The digital world can’t replace our presence

Fairplay Campaign Organizer Bzu Shiferaw shares her story of creating new family traditions.
By Bzu Shiferaw

During the holiday season my family tends to stick to the same traditions. My parents host Thanksgiving dinner and my uncle along with his wife and kids are invited. They have three children – each a wonder of their own – aged 3, 6, and 9.

They know me and my siblings well, and I have observed their habits and behaviors over time and compared it to my early years. My childhood memories were filled with outdoor playtime with my friends creating our own games. Being interactive with others was inspiring, and helped me hone my own ability to be creative and inventive. These young cousins of mine, though bright and unique in their own right, are growing up in the age of technology and their favorite toys…are phones.

It’s scary to think of the pressures kids face from the online world, and especially in the covid era of staying indoors, the internet is what keeps friends connected. Yes, it has this potential to connect and create, but developers were not prepared for the negative effects these platforms would have on adolescents, because children’s safety wasn’t a primary concern.

This holiday season is also the first I am spending as Campaign Organizer at Fairplay, and my first since graduating from university. A big portion of my first few months at Fairplay was researching the effects increased screen time has on children. In some ways it made the strange observations I made during the latter half of my own childhood feel validated.

Smartphones and social media came about during my teenage years, and quickly became intertwined with our identities. It wasn’t a simple coincidence that friends in high school discussed plastic surgery as life goals, or when scrutinizing each other’s body shapes became the new way to bully. The distorted images on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat changed our perception of who we were or are meant to be. Tucking away feelings of inadequacy and insecurity felt impossible when the new standard of perfection is right in the palm of your hand with over 100 likes and what seems to be endless comments affirming that person’s place in the pyramid of popularity. Though I’m thankful my lateness to the online persona contest helped me maintain my feeling of presence in reality, the younger generation is increasingly being pressured to spend more time in the digital world.

While nonprofits like Fairplay are working with legislators to regulate Big Tech at scale, I figured I could take some of my work home with me and maybe help my young cousins who live a good portion of their daily lives on YouTube and video game apps. Taking (and reversing) a tip from the design element creators of popular social media platforms, I tried giving them small nudges. Little hints to push them away from screens and to be present with their family. This Thanksgiving I wanted to do the ultimate; to have them spend most of the day off of their tablets/phones without them even missing their screens.

After talking with their parents we decided to turn off the devices and encourage them to play. I printed out word searches and turkey mazes to start with, and they loved the family fun. Afterwards they played hide and seek, dominoes, and UNO. They laughed, threw tantrums, even had a screaming match over a suspected cheater in the UNO game. But I didn’t do this so that they would be quiet and obedient children – I wanted to give them the space to be themselves in a safe environment.

I hope to continue this new tradition in our family, to have the kids and the adults put away the screens and let the conversation and awkward pauses exist as they always have. After all, the digital world has its place, but it cannot replace the gifts of our physical presence and individual creativity.